Remember to Smile: Waiting For Spring - Dressage Today

Remember to Smile: Waiting For Spring

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Our two-day winter storm is but a distant memory, and our skies, glass blue with a watery bit of sun in the morning, growing stronger by midday, now nudges the crocuses and one thousand (ask me how I know) daffodils we've planted on the farm, to explode in a profusion of color.

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Forrest is enjoying his turn out time immensely so let us take a look at how his bare feet are now expanding amid the tufts of dormant Bermuda grass in the big field:

Hmm, not so good. As you can see from this photo, taken two weeks ago, Forrest has an exceedingly flat sole and that outside edge of the hoof, where my gloved finger points, should be butted up against the “buttress” of the frog. Obviously, it’s got a ways to go. And my farrier, Sean, says we’ll actually be able to watch the hoof grow, it will just take time.

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But this doesn’t mean we don't have lots to do! Forrest’s new bridle has arrived and I am going through my jewelry box of bits to see which would be the most appropriate and comfortable for him as I would like to begin teaching him jaw flexions in hand.

To the best of my knowledge (and I am not by any means an expert on OTTBs), racehorses are generally ridden in single jointed snaffles. They also learn that when the jockey takes a hold of the reins, that’s the cue to upshift into top gear and bear down on that bit. The single jointed snaffle, in return, puts quite a bit of pressure on the tongue and can give that “nutcracker” effect we often hear about.

Keeping in mind that, upon inspection, Forrest appears to have a slightly low-ish palate, my choice for him, at this point, is a simple, loose ring, French Link snaffle, which is a multi-jointed bit and will lay flatter over his tongue, which should be more comfortable as opposed to the angle of a Dr. Bristol. Now, the loose ring might possibly pinch him, so I will have to watch for that and switch to an eggbutt. We shall see.

Asking Forrest to stand relatively square in the barn aisle, I begin our jaw flexions (I say, “our,” because I can help mimicking his actions—sort of like when you feed a baby in a highchair and open your own mouth wide so the “choo choo” of food will go to its desired tunnel). What I want to do is simply lift both sides of the snaffle straight up, toward his ears, until he begins to chew and swallow. 

I stand next to Forrest (so I don’t get whacked in the face should he fling his head in this first attempt) and hook my thumbs on either side, through the rings of the snaffle and begin. As soon as he begins to chew, I stop, praise and reward. 

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Then I move in front of him and lift one ring and flex him slightly in the atlas/poll only, not the whole neck, to one side, then straight ahead, then to the other side, and repeat to encourage him to follow my hands all the way down to the ground, chewing, swallowing and stretching. It’s vital that the bit be lifted—the last thing I want to do is pull the bit downward and put pressure on the sensitive, fleshy bars of his mouth, which would cause discomfort and a forced positioning. 


Forrest was a willing candidate and figured out my request on the second attempt. After he happily followed my hands down to the ground, he was given a cookie.

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Next, I moved to his shoulder, facing forward, and took both reins (as if I were mounted) and asked for the same reaction, which he promptly gave. 

This normally translates nicely undersaddle when I ask a horse to stand quietly, on contact, and chew, swallow and stretch calmly down before moving off into walk, all the while releasing those groovy endorphins and beginning the ride with a happy, soft and mobile jaw. 

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And should a horse begin to suffer from tension during a riding session, I can simply walk or halt and encourage him to soften and stretch to relax or even gently lift a hand to relieve any tension in the mouth. This isn’t about hand riding—this is just a tool borrowed from the French school, to keep a horse feeling loose and soft.

Next time, the dreaded mounting block!

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